Thursday, July 28, 2011


From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: Of crickets, silk worms, and temples

Between two short work weeks comes a long weekend. We left “home” on Friday morning to spend a few days in Siem Reap, 300 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh near Tonle Sap Lake. Once the capital of Cambodia, Siem Reap today is the place where most tourists land to see the dozens of temple ruins of Angkor.

On this trip we were joined by our host’s wife Neang and their boys Peace and Harmony, and fourteen people comfortably fit into a van very similar to last week’s. The road leading north is paved and in reasonable condition. With heavily loaded vehicles of all types connecting the towns and the occasional cow or pig slowly crossing, allow five to six hours for a trip the distance of Vienna – Salzburg.

The countryside looked greener and better developed agriculturally than the south, maybe due to the increasing rainfall as we finally getting into the rainy season. A pit stop along the way was an opportunity for Khim Chamroeun, our tour guide and driver for this trip, who happens to own the hotel in Siem Reap that we would stay at, to get some yummy snacks, crickets! We had tarantulas when we came here, and the kids seemed to enjoy the crickets (or our strange looks watching them), so let’s try!

They are right, crickets taste like chicken, crispy chicken. I couldn’t think of a really good answer to Natali’s question though why we are not simply having chicken then.

Our next stop was the Santuk Silk Farm, which is run by Bud Gibbons, an American Vietnam war veteran who returned to work on social projects, and when the funding for those programs came to end decided to stay and turn a non-profit organization into a socially responsible business, and his Khmer wife Nevin. Bud took us through the whole process of producing silk, starting with the worms enjoying their mulberry bush leave feast, followed by the cocooning which only lasts for about 72 hours, in which time the silk worm produced over 300 meters of fiber. Next, the cocoons are collected and soaked in hot water before multiple fibers are combined to create one silk thread. The last production step is the coloring of the threads. What remains in the pot is an empty cocoon shell and another culinary delight, a cooked silk worm.

The Cambodian silk produced here is stronger and has a yellowish color, most of the silk processed nowadays is Chinese silk though and the thread production here is mostly done for educational purposes. The actual “factory” is an open house with several wooden hand looms, where workers turn the threads into colorful, pretty scarves.

A production facility of different sorts was next on our route, just a few minutes from the silk farm. On both sides of the road stone cutters work on mostly Buddha and a few other statues, from handy palm size to meters high objects. Just standing there watching in the midday heat was cruel, hard to imagine what working here for many hours must be like.

We reached Siem Reap in the afternoon, dropped our stuff in the very spacious rooms at the very special Angkor Spirit Palace hotel, a charming building that gets visitors into the right mood for temple visits right away, and rushed over to the temples to see the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, a Hindu mountain temple ruin on a hill, overlooking Angkor Wat. As the sky darkened with grey clouds, watching the number of tourists climbing up the narrow stairs turned out to be more impressive than the sunset itself, and with my sort of tense relationship with heights I was especially proud that I made it up, and down, the temple hill.

Just as we got back into the van it started pouring with rain; how quickly the weather can change and the amount of water suddenly coming down continues to amaze me. The evening program was a buffet dinner and a colorful Khmer dance performance at Kouley restaurant.

Early Saturday morning (no chance to sleep in on weekends) we started our Angkor tour. In order to understand the temples of Angkor let me share some historic information, shamelessly copied from Wolfgang’s #ibmcsc blog:

From roughly 900–1200 A.D., the Khmer Empire dominated Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos), as well as Thailand and a few other countries down here. It was a highly developed society, with both Buddhist and Hindu roots. Interestingly the religion swapped back and forth as kings came and went, such that one portion of the temples are dominated by Buddha figures, and the others by the Hindu gods. Today Cambodia is mostly a Buddhist country. The two most famous temples are Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, the “Jungle Temple”. Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple and dedicated to the god Vishnu. It is the biggest religious building in the world, and this temple is what every tourist would recognize as the symbol of Cambodia. The walls on all levels feature endless stories carved into the rocks in amazing detail.

After the Khmer empire fell apart, almost all of the temples here were abandoned and swallowed by the jungles. They were re-discovered around 1860, and only de-jungled fairly recently.

The Buddhist temple Angkor Thum was our first stop, and our tour guide Socheat patiently explained the various scenes depicted in the reliefs.

Next was Ta Prohm, which was left in its wild state and is partially covered by huge trees, a truly amazing place where you cannot but take lots of pictures, and so we did.

Angkor Wat, the largest temple of the world, was our last sight for the day, and thanks to Baskar we learned a lot about Hindu gods and their appearances in different forms. Parts of the temple were closed in preparation for a ceremony, but even without getting to the top we got a good idea of the dimensions of this monument.

A description of a day at Angkor would not be complete without mentioning the sellers at each meeting point who offer hats, bags, wristbands, musical instruments, guidebooks, postcards, you name it and will entice visitors with anything from fishing for sympathy to irresistible special offers (“Only one dollar, Sir! Two for one dollar, Sir! Five for one dollar, Sir!”)

The day ended with a fantastic meal and a few beers at our host’s place, and I will save my floating village report for later.

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 22, 2011


Kep, Rabbit Island and a short work week in Cambodia

Friday morning it is and the weekend has already started for the Corporate Service Corps team in Cambodia. Our friends at ABV will show us Siem Reap and the famous Angkor temples, and since the road trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap takes some time we ended the week early, and will only be back at work next Tuesday.

But first things first: I have yet to tell about our fabulous trip last weekend. We had decided to spend some time on the beach and rented a van with driver to get us to Kep, 150 km south of Phnom Penh and once a fashionable seaside town for the rich and famous. During the Khmer Rouge regime many buildings were badly damaged, and Kep’s unique architecture was largely destroyed. Nowadays Kep is famous for the crab market, and becoming popular mostly with locals again, but the ruins remain.

We left Phnom Penh early after breakfast and headed south, alongside fields where farmers were planting rice or plowing with oxen teams, through the small villages where the residents were offering their products for sale, gathering on the local markets or sipping coffee at the restaurant. Everyone seems to be selling something, from agricultural products to hardware and construction material to telephones, from dusk till dawn, seven days a week. The small stores usually house the owner’s home in the back of the store, and the garage for the motorcycle too. Many of the housings offer little more than a bed and a television set, so not surprisingly the community life mostly happens on the streets.

One reason for the popularity of mobile phones in the rural areas – even the smallest agglomeration of houses has a phone shop – is a mobile payment service provided by Wing that works over the phone, so rather than transferring money through a “classic” bank people now transfer funds between mobile phones.

By now we are used to seeing complete families on a motorcycle, children squeezed between the parents or hand-held on the side, but we couldn’t have imagined what cargo can go on a motorcycle, or how many people fit in a car. People are quite creative and brave when it comes to transportation.

The Central Market in Kampot offers a variety of goods, from textiles to household articles and all kinds of food. The air is filled with a mix of scents, and the grilled meat and spices smelled quite tempting.

We continued our trip to Kep, where we had lunch with plenty of shrimps and seafood and a skinny chicken before transferring to our hotel for the night. The Raingsey Bungalow had five comfortable bungalows for us and a swimming pool, just what we needed. Later Bertrand, Patricia, Wolfgang and I went for the scenic 8 km trail through the Kep National Park. We saw squirrels, butterflies and a huge millipede of some sort, but no monkeys although there should be some in the park, and other wildlife too. Our dinner was seafood again at one of the restaurants near the crab market, in a very basic setting but close to the sea and with good food at reasonable prices.

Sunday was another beautiful day. Two boats brought us over to Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, an uncrowded island with sea, sandy beaches, palm trees and sunbeds, what more could you ask for! We spent the entire day here, swimming, playing frisbee and “organic bocce” with a coconut and fruits we collected, and some folks had massages on the beach also. Much to our surprise, the tiny little restaurant in the area where we had settled not only offered the heavily promoted pancakes with bananas but had a full menu card with beef, chicken, pork, fish, shrimp and vegetarian curries, desserts, and cocktails, quite remarkable for a place with one room, with water coming from a tank and with an open fire place in the annex for cooking. The boat ride back was somewhat bumpier than in the morning, and we had to go in one boat this time together with some local passengers, all after walking across the island because the winds had become too heavy on the other side of the island. We made it back to Kep safely and wet and were fortunate that the nice staff at Raingsey Bungalow would let us use their showers and the pool again. We concluded the day with another dinner at the crab market, seafood and fish and pizza in two adjacent restaurants, and returned to Phnom Penh around 10 p.m.

The following week at work was fairly busy: I completed my web security assessment and held two training sessions for the staff, one about web security and one about productivity and getting things done, roughly following the methodology outlined in David Allen’s book by the same name. Working on my community project, I struggled to find an electronic payment service provider which supports merchants, or in this case charities, located in Cambodia. The big ones like PayPal, Amazon Payment Services and Google Checkout are not available for Cambodian organizations, so our list is now narrowed down to SBC Bank, which has a solid and well-documented payment gateway interface but the fees are more suitable for business customers, and Ammado, a payment service targeted at non-profit organizations. At least we have some options to go forward with, and the team agreed with the goals and timelines for the project at the kickoff meeting. Stay tuned!

On Thursday evening the IBM Vietnam General Manager, Mr. Vo Tan Long, invited our team to a dinner meeting at Boddhi Tree’s Umma restaurant. Bertrand and Natali had worked with the restaurant staff and created a fine dinner, and we enjoyed a nice selection of appetizers, main courses and desserts from the buffet and a good glass of wine. Apart from the official dinner, the group of people eating out at night got smaller and smaller. We tried some restaurants on 240 Street this week, including the Sugar Palm, the Tamarind with its nice rooftop terrace, and the stylish corner wine bar. Some folks even explored all the “forbidden places”.

We had no spiders nor any other culinary surprises this week, so let’s see what we can find on our way to Siem Reap!

Labels: , ,

Saturday, July 16, 2011


One week in Cambodia. Over and out.

Last Friday the Atlantis space shuttle took off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center for the last time. When the first orbiters launched, the world was watching the takeoffs and listening to the crackling sounds of astronauts describing how beautiful our planet looked from outer space.

The recent conversations with my family often reminded me of conversations with a spaceship. Not that Phnom Pehn wouldn’t have decent connectivity: there are 3G networks everywhere, and even in more remote parts of the city the mobile coverage is great, unlike in rural areas where electricity and communication lines are often poor, if available at all. Calling from mobile phones is fairly expensive though when there is so much to recount, even though a call to Cambodia costs much less than what a national call used to cost two decades ago, when we were used to brief facts only telephone conversations.

Voice over IP to the rescue! The Boddhi Tree hotel not only offers great hospitality and friendly service but also reasonably fast, reliable and free wireless connectivity, so talking over Skype or Y! Voice should be as easy as 1-2-3. Unless the computer refuses to recognize the built-in microphone, that is. Several reboots and desperate attempts to change the audio settings later I found a discussion thread about failing ThinkPad audio drivers on the Lenovo forum, downloaded and installed the simple Conexant driver and had a working microphone again.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, we can have a good chat with clear quality and minimal delays one day, sound like spaceship commanders in orbit the next day or suffer from long delays (“Hallo hallo hallo hallo hallo?”) and bad echo. At some point we even reverted to CB radio voice procedure, passing control and muting the line in-between, much to the fun of the kids, who then limited their conversation to shouting “Over”. They don’t seem to miss me too much but did send kisses over the wire(less) and commented unfavorably about our food.

The first week has been incredibly busy and gone by so quickly. I cannot believe that we have been in Cambodia for a week already. On Monday we had an introductory coffee meeting with our #ibmcsc clients at the hotel. “Coffee meeting” is an understatement, as the coffee was accompanied by a nice buffet of fresh fruit, sweet and spicy snacks, pancakes filled with fruit, more like a brunch.

During my assignment I will work with a local organization that provides HR recruitment, outsourcing and consulting services, training, and IT services, as well as on a social project for the elderly, about which I will write more shortly. Others on our team support socially responsible small businesses in the tourism and IT services industries and a company that created jobs for land mine accident survivors in the food industry and produces delicious dried fruit, of which we get daily samples through Wolfgang and Patricia.

The welcome at our client’s side was fantastic. We were greeted by a big decorated sign on the entrance door, and then introduced to the teams. My week was split between meetings with the managing director and staff to get an understanding of the organization and where I can help, preparing my work plan for the month, putting together workshop materials, running the workshop with an active and enthusiastic group, doing security testing, and preparing more workshop materials for the following week. On Wednesday Marisol and I took the opportunity to visit a small training factory for garment workers and a large school run by the French charity
Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), which provides education, healthcare and three meals every day to the students in Phnom Penh.

Speaking of meals, we had no more spiders this week but explored other culinary delights of the city together in the evenings and tasted Cambodian, French (well, at least before the onion soup was enhanced with spices :-)) and Vietnamese food.

That’s all for this week, and now it’s time for a relaxing weekend in the seaside city of Kep. Over and out!

Labels: , ,

Monday, July 11, 2011


Weekend in Cambodia: Of history and spiders

The Boddhi Tree Aram in the heart of historic Phnom Penh should become our home for the next 30 days. The friendly staff welcomed us with home-made bread and rules and a selection of fresh fruit. Almost everyone had made it to the hotel already and we stood a good chance of having the full team together for the first official meeting in the afternoon. Boddhi Tree is more than just a hotel. The goal of the team is to improve the living conditions of people in Cambodia through running a successful social enterprise. The organization has grown to 80 staff members, including some who work part time to allow time for their studies, and supports local and international NGO projects.

A few of us decided to go on a sightseeing tour. Since our first destination, the Royal Palace, was closed until 2 p.m., as we learned many, many times from the Tuk Tuk drivers who insisted that we should go on a tour with them instead, we walked(!) around. Walking is not very common in Phnom Penh, which is understandable given the temperature and the high humidity during the rainy season, but a perfect way to explore an unknown city. After a visit to the temple, a good discussion with a young monk about rituals, monastic life and education, and the history of the country and watching a Buddhist ceremony performed for Marisol we continued to the local market

The Kandal market hall with its narrow corridors, where tailors and artisans create and sell their products, is surrounded by stands selling fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and seafood, others offering various cooked foods, and the variety of scents and colors dazzles the senses. We weren’t brave enough to try food from the stands, not on day 1, so we settled for the nearby Riverside Bistro, which serves Khmer, Thai and other Asian food as well as international dishes. The Fish Amok was delicious, and so was the coconut drink served in its natural container.

The National Museum was next on our route. Surrounding an inviting courtyard with fish ponds, it houses a collection of Khmer sculptures including a statue of eight-armed Vishnu, and a collection of Buddhas.

We concluded the day with the first official #ibmcsc meeting with a freshly made variation of Caipirinha (cachaça replaced by vodka) and an introduction to Phnom Penh by ABV staff, followed by a delicious buffet dinner at the hotel. Everyone had made it to the hotel by now, and we were relieved to hear that one colleague’s visa problems had been sorted out at the very last moment (the story he told was almost too good to be true).

Sunday started with another scrumptious breakfast, followed by an orientation tour through Phnom Penh. We visited the Psar Thmai central market, which was recently renovated and offered mostly jewelery, garments, household articles, and managed to get back to our van unharmed by the busy traffic.

An exploration of Cambodian history would not be complete without looking at the 1970 revolution, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime that cost millions of lives and left the country devastated. We spent some time together at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where about 17,000 victims were executed and buried in mass graves. Excavations have not been completed, and occasionally bones surface on the walkways. A stupa and a museum commemorate the thousands of deaths and remind people of the cruelties merely 40 years ago.

A visit to the Royal Palace, the pavilions and gardens with the silver pagoda, statues and shrines, in the afternoon concluded our sightseeing tour for the day. We had caught a glimpse of Cambodia’s history in two days.

The only thing that was left for the weekend was a new culinary experience at the Romdeng restaurant, a very nice training restaurant run by former street youth and their teachers and designed to promote Cambodian culture and food, including the infamous fried tarantulas.

Bon appétit!

PS. The staff will also gladly show tarantulas which are alive and happy to walk around on guests’ hands. My favorite quote of the day came from Natali: “Baskar, stop playing with the food!”

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 8, 2011


Changing teams

Joining the Corporate Service Corps #ibmcsc means working with a new team for the month. I was ready to leave home and start my journey to Phnom Penh, but I reckoned without my host.

That last team meeting in Vienna was at the usual time on Thursday morning (except that I was late since packing had taken longer than planned and schlepping the suitcase and two bags to the office slowed me down further, but I am digressing). Instead of the usual breakfast rolls and business talk, there was a delicious cake, home-made by Sabine, champagne, and a greeting card from the team wishing me a safe trip and a great experience, what a nice surprise! Thank you team, that was really very nice.

In the evening I left for the airport directly from the office. The flight from Vienna was overbooked, and the compensation which the airlined offered for voluntarily choosing a later flight wasn’t all that attractive, especially since the alternate choice wasn’t even a direct flight, on the other hand I had never been to Mumbai, not that I seriously considered taking an alternate flight, but I am digressing again. Surprisingly, I got a good night’s sleep on the plane, only interrupted by a late dinner and an early breakfast.

The stopover in Bangkok was a great opportunity to watch shopkeepers doing the sompeas greeting, which is also used in Cambodia. Note to self: it would be helpful to not have the hands full with bags, tickets and other stuff for sompeas. I hope a friendly nod as the only response I was capable of wasn’t considered impolite.

At the airport in Bangkok I also met the first members of our team; Natali and Daniela were waiting for the same flight and recognized me from my picture. We had another yummy dinner on the short flight to Phnom Penh, followed by a smooth flow through the visa, immigration and customs checkpoints. Too bad we didn’t get a Tuk Tuk like Bertrand did the other day, just are regular car which safely brought us to our hotel, the Boddhi Tree, where we met Patricia, Renata and Marisol.

After spending three months on weekly calls and exchanging profiles, talking about professional experience, hobbies, and plans for the stay in Cambodia, it was great to finally meet in person, and it felt like we were good friends who had known each other for a long time already.

Tomorrow we will meet the rest of the team and also the folks from Australian Business Volunteers. Time for some rest, one more lychee from the fruit platter and then: រាត្រីសូស្គី!

Labels: , ,

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Kim Wilde, Tisabamokkha and tears

Destination: Phnom Penh

Humming Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” song, I am getting ready for a special trip. In a few hours, I will leave for my assignment in Phnom Penh under the umbrella of the IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) program. #ibmcsc A team of nine people from around the globe, with diverse professional experience, will come together in the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia (ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា in Khmer) for a month and work with local businesses and NGOs on business, technology and society challenges.

More than a 1,000 fellow IBMers have participated in CSC assignments globally. We are the first team to visit Cambodia and hope to lay ground for future engagements. After three months of preparation which flew by faster than you can imagine, we are ready for our journey and looking forward to getting together as a team and meeting our clients and the team from Australian Business Volunteers (ABV), the non-government, not-for-profit international development agency which manages the program locally.


While looking for a fancier name than “Team 1” we came across the folktale of Tisabamokkha, a famous teacher in Takkasila, and a great king, who ruled over a rich kingdom and was looking for ways to protect his kingdom and his people.

The king, the beautiful queen, their four chief ministers, and the royal astrologer learned magic with Tisabamokkha and were taught the art of turning themselves into all kinds of animals and heavenly beings. When they got lost in the forest of Takkasila on their way home and were starving, they decided to use their magic powers to transform their bodies into a royal tiger: The four chief ministers turned into the four legs of the tiger, the astrologer into the tiger's tail and the queen into the tiger's body. The tiger's head was left for the king himself. The tiger was stronger and more powerful than other animals, and he was so happy with the wonderful new life that he never returned to his kingdom.

What we liked about the story is that it emphasizes the idea that people must cooperate for the common good, and remember their responsibilities to give back to the community. Likewise, working on a CSC assignment is also about cooperating and giving back. The CSC program was announced in 2008 by our CEO Sam Palmisano and aims to provide skills, talent, and capabilities to communities in emerging market countries while helping IBMers gain valuable experience and skills for working in a global environment. Participation is completely voluntary, but once you accept the assignment it does require a fairly significant investment in time and resources for preparation and while in country.


One of the hardest parts is leaving the family behind for a month, even more so during vacation season when the kids are home. The boys took it easy and quickly returned to playing with their toys after kissing me goodbye; it was yours truly who had the eyes filled with tears. Thank you to my family for allowing me to explore what previous teams described as one of the best experiences that you would have as an IBMer, and thank you to my colleagues and management for the support and encouragement.

PS. We will also post updates about our month in Cambodia on our team blog.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Web usability: Account required

Web usability is about enabling users to achieve their goals with ease, at least not make it impossible to complete a task online. When the Nikon website no longer recognized my account credentials and the password reset function claimed to send an e-mail but I never received any communication from Nikon, I contacted their support using an online form. So far so good, the usability problem started when I received their response.

David D. from Nikon support (why do people no longer have full names?) sent me a message which started with instructions how to respond: “If you have any further questions to our support response, please click the link at the bottom. Hitting reply from your email browser will not reach our group.”

Clicking on the link then brings you to—you probably guessed it—the account login page, and there is no way to respond to the message if you don't have a valid, working account.

I did not get my account restored since I had contacted the wrong Nikon country branch, and rather than forwarding the request to the appropriate support team David sent me the country list to find out how Nikon wants to be contacted.

I have another request into the local support team now, in the same ticketing system, so I really hope that their first response will solve the problem…


  • Hide the complexity of your organisation from the customer. Forwarding a request to the appropriate contact within the company is more efficient than having the customer track down the right contact and submit the same information again.
  • When sending an e-mail message, be prepared to receive a response by e-mail too. Most online support systems can handle e-mail responses and link the response to the support thread with a unique ID in the subject line.
  • Provide an alternate path to address problems with the support website itself. Customers with non-working accounts obviously cannot login to discuss their account problems.

Update: The local support team could easily solve what appears to be a general problem with the online support system that the first team should have been aware about as well.

Labels: ,

Monday, May 16, 2011


Taking a break from teaching

Today I handed in my office keys at Webster University after proctoring the final exam on Web animation.

In 2004 I had started as adjunct professor in the computer science faculty, teaching Web scripting to a small group of business and IT students, which meant refreshing and formalizing my JavaScript knowledge (closures, anyone?) and learning the basics of VBScript, too. Following that I taught several rounds of design principles and Web animation, starting with the ancient Macromedia Flash and slowly upgrading to Adobe Flash CS3 and CS4.

Sharing what I know and learning what I didn't know has been a great experience. Not only did teaching give me reasons to explore various subjects in greater detail and develop new skills, did I gain a better understanding of the American educational system and students' expectations at a smaller private university campus, and get to attend a graduation ceremony at the Konzerthaus in formal academic regalia. Discussing with students and seeing them going from no knowledge to expert level in just a few weeks, then coming back for the next course and (sometimes) even having fun writing code or building Web animations was also highly rewarding. I am equally pleased to often find some of “my” graduates in good positions at companies and institutions around the world.

Now is a good time to take a break from teaching. Webster University no longer offers the full computer science curriculum in Vienna, resulting in fewer courses which I would like to teach, and balancing this with my other personal and professional activities has become increasingly difficult.

I would like to thank first and foremost my students, you have been a great crowd, and the faculty members and staff at Webster University in Vienna for their support, I have learned a lot from you all.

Thanks, and to my students, good luck with your remaining exams!


Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Bookmarks on the move

AVOS acquires Delicious social bookmarking service from Yahoo!

After months of rumors about Delicious’ future, Yahoo! announced that the popular social bookmarking service has been acquired by Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, the founders of YouTube. Delicious will become part of their new Internet company, AVOS, and will be enhanced to become “even easier and more fun to save, share, and discover” according to AVOS’ FAQ for Delicious.

Delicious became well-known not only for its service but also for the clever domain hack when it was still called (and yes, remembering where to place the dots was hard!) Once called “one of the grandparents of the Web 2.0 movement” Delicious provides a simple user interface, mass editing capabilities and a complete API and doesn’t look old in its eighth year in service.

Let’s hope that the smart folks at AVOS will keep Delicious running smoothly.

PS. Current bookmarks should carry over once you agree to AVOS’ terms of use and privacy statement, keeping a copy of your bookmarks might be a good idea. To export/download bookmarks access and save the bookmark file locally, including tags and notes.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Google vs. Bing: A technical solution for fair use of clickstream data

When Google engineers noticed that Bing unexpectedly returned the same result as Google for a misspelling of tarsorrhapy, they concluded that somehow Bing considered Google’s search results for its own ranking. Danny Sullivan ran the story about Bing cheating and copying Google search results last week. (Also read his second article on this subject, Bing: Why Google’s Wrong In Its Accusations.)

Google decided to create a trap for Bing by returning results for about 100 bogus terms, as Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow who oversees the search engine’s ranking algorithm, explains:
To be clear, the synthetic query had no relationship with the inserted result we chose—the query didn’t appear on the webpage, and there were no links to the webpage with that query phrase. In other words, there was absolutely no reason for any search engine to return that webpage for that synthetic query. You can think of the synthetic queries with inserted results as the search engine equivalent of marked bills in a bank.
Running Internet Explorer 8 with the Bing toolbar installed, and the “Suggested Sites” feature of IE8 enabled, Google engineers searched Google for these terms and clicked on the inserted results, and confirmed that a few of these results, including “delhipublicschool40 chdjob”, “hiybbprqag”, “indoswiftjobinproduction”, “jiudgefallon”, “juegosdeben1ogrande”, “mbzrxpgjys” and “ygyuuttuu hjhhiihhhu”, started appearing in Bing a few weeks later:

The experiment showed that Bing uses clickstream data to determine relevant content, a fact that Microsoft’s Harry Shum, Vice President Bing, confirmed:
We use over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm. A small piece of that is clickstream data we get from some of our customers, who opt-in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the web in order to help us improve the experience for all users.
These clickstream data include Google search results, more specifically the click-throughs from Google search result pages. Bing considers these for its own results and consequently may show pages which otherwise wouldn’t show in the results at all since they don’t contain the search term, or rank results differently. Relying on a single signal made Bing susceptible to spamming, and algorithms would need to be improved to weed suspicious results out, Shum acknowledged.

As an aside, Google had also experienced in the past how relying too heavily on a few signals allowed individuals to influence the ranking of particular pages for search terms such as “miserable failure”; despite improvements to the ranking algorithm we continue to see successful Google bombs. (John Dozier's book about Google bombing nicely explains how to protect yourself from online defamation.)

The experiment failed to validate if other sources are considered in the clickstream data. Outraged about the findings, Google accused Bing of stealing its data and claimed that “Bing results increasingly look like an incomplete, stale version of Google results—a cheap imitation”.

Whither clickstream data?

Privacy concerns aside—customers installing IE8 and the Bing toolbar, or most other toolbars for that matter, may not fully understand and often not care how their behavior is tracked and shared with vendors—using clickstream data to determine relevant content for search results makes sense. Search engines have long considered click-throughs on their results pages in ranking algorithms, and specialized search engines or site search functions will often expose content that a general purpose search engine crawler hasn’t found yet.

Google also collects loads of clickstream data from the Google toolbar and the popular Google Analytics service, but claims that Google does not consider Google Analytics for page ranking.

Using clickstream data from browsers and toolbars to discover additional pages and seeding the crawler with those pages is different from using the referring information to determine relevant results for search terms. Microsoft Research recently published a paper Learning Phrase-Based Spelling Error Models from Clickthrough Data about how to improve the spelling corrections by using click data from “other search engines”. While there is no evidence that the described techniques have been implemented in Bing, “targeting Google deliberately” as Matt Cutts puts it would undoubtedly go beyond fair use of clickstream data.

Google considers the use of clickstream data that contains Google Search URLs plagiarism and doesn't want another search engine to use this data. With Google dominating the search market and handling the vast majority of searches, Bing's inclusion of results from a competitor remains questionable even without targeting, and dropping that signal from the algorithm would be a wise choice.

Should all clickstream data be dropped from the ranking algorithms, or just certain sources? Will the courts decide what constitutes fair use of clickstream data and who “owns” these data, or can we come up with a technical solution?

Robots Exclusion Protocol to the rescue

The Robots Exclusion Protocol provides an effective and scalable mechanism for selecting appropriate sources for resource discovery and ranking. Clickstream data sources and crawlers results have a lot in common. Both provide information about pages for inclusion in the search index, and relevance information in the form of inbound links or referring pages, respectively.

SourceWeb pageReferring page
TargetLinkFollowed link
WeightLink count and equityClick volume

Following the Robots Exclusion Protocol, search engines only index Web pages which are not blocked in robots.txt, and not marked non-indexable with a robots meta tag. Applying the protocol to clickstream data, search engines should only consider indexable pages in the ranking algorithms, and limit the use of clickstream data to resource discovery when the referring page cannot be indexed.

Search engines will still be able to use clickstream data from sites which allow access to local search results, for example the site search on, whereas Google search results are marked as non-indexable in and therefore excluded.

Clear disclosure how clickstream data are used and a choice to opt-in or opt-out put Web users in control of their clickstream data. Applying the Robots Exclusion Protocol to clickstream data will further allow Web site owners to control third party use of their URL information.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, January 24, 2011


IBM turns 100

This year marks IBM's 100th anniversary. Few companies can say that they have been around that long, especially in high tech industries.

The IBM Centennial Film: 100×100 shows IBM's history of innovation, featuring one hundred people who present the IBM achievement recorded in the year they were born, and bridges into the future with new challenges to build a smarter planet.

Another 30-minute video tells the story behind IBM inventions and innovations.

For more than twenty years I have not just worked for IBM but been a part of IBM. It has been a pleasure, and I certainly look forward to many more to come!

I am an IBMer.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, January 1, 2011


Happy New Year 2011

Wishing You A Very Happy and Prosperous New Year!


Friday, December 31, 2010


Missed a birthday this week? Blame Facebook!

With most social networking sites offering birthday reminders, missing a friend's special day has become close to impossible, unless one of you completely abstains from social networks.

A chronologically sorted list of upcoming birthdays comes handy, and Facebook usually provides that. In the last week of the year, however, the sorting doesn't look quite right.

Dear Facebook, January does come before December but only in the same year:

At least you have a good excuse now if you missed a birthday this week.

PS. Have you noticed that Facebook informs you about your friends' birthdays even when they don't share that information on their profiles?

Labels: ,

Friday, December 24, 2010


When two men fight for their position in line…

When two men fight for their position in line at the fish stall,
When a truck and a car block each other at the car park and both drivers furiously refuse to back up,
When all the Briochekipferl are sold out as if everyone was going to have a Verhülltes Bauernmädchen for dessert this year,
Then it must be the most peaceful time of the year.

We wish you all the best for the holidays.

Frohe Weihnachten!
Merry Christmas!
Veselé Vianoce!
Joyeux Noël!
Feliz Natal!
کریسمس مبارک


Sunday, November 7, 2010


How to fix the “Your computer is not connected to the network” error with Yahoo! Messenger

If you are like me and upgrade software only when there are critical security fixes or you badly need a few feature, you may have tried sticking to an older version of Yahoo! Messenger. I made the mistake of upgrading, and was almost cut off voice service for a few days. Fortunately, Yahoo! has a fix for the problem, which only seems to affect some users.

The new video calling capability in Yahoo! Messenger 10 didn't really draw my attention. Nevertheless I eventually gave in and allowed the automatic upgrade, if only to get rid of the nagging upgrade notice. At first everything seemed fine: The settings were copied over, and the user interface looked reasonably familiar. However, soon after, voice calls started failing with an obscure error message “Your computer is not connected to the network”. Restarting Yahoo! Messenger sometimes helped, but clearly this wasn't working as reliably as the previous version. “Works sometimes” wasn't good enough for me.

Yahoo! support was exceptionally helpful, within minutes the helpdesk agent had identified that I was running Yahoo! Messenger version, which was the latest and greatest at the time but a few issues with voice telephony. He recommended uninstalling the current messenger and manually installing a slightly back-level version of Yahoo! Messenger 10, and disallow further automatic upgrades. The installation worked smoothly, and voice support in Yahoo! Messenger has been working flawlessly ever since.

Thank you, Yahoo! support.


Labels: , ,

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


One year later …

When I embarked upon studying law in September last year, little did I know what to expect. How easily would I get back into learning? Which subjects would I find interesting? How much time would I be able to devote to studying besides job, family and teaching?

One year later I have answers to most of my questions. Getting back into the learning routine wasn’t too hard. The work commute has provided an excellent opportunity for reading text books (although they look somewhat shabby after a few round trips in the backpack). Watching the video streams in the narrow period during which they are made available turned out to be the biggest challenge, with soon-to-expire lectures piling up towards weekends and more than once requiring the family’s understanding and support.

One year later I am happy to report that things have been going well. I took most of the exams offered and passed with reasonable grades, and will soon have completed the first section of the program.

This week I attend the second lecture block at the Institut für Multimediale Linzer Rechtsstudien in Linz to learn about the courses offered in the upcoming years, to pick up more books and DVDs with recorded lectures, and to meet with other students.

Will this change what I do professionally? That question I haven’t answered yet, but it’s quite possible that one day it will. After I finish my courses, that is.

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 9, 2010


20 years Internet in Austria

Today we take ubiquitous Internet access for granted and feel lost when our network connection briefly drops. It wasn't always like that.

On August 10, 1990, Austria became connected to the Internet with a 64 Kbit/s leased line between Vienna University and CERN in Geneva. Having Internet connectivity at one university didn’t mean everything moved to the Internet immediately.

The first online service I had used was CompuServe in 1985 while visiting friends in the UK. Watching the characters and occasional block graphics slowly trickle in over an acoustic coupler at 300 baud transfer rate was exciting (and expensive for my host). Back home, the post and telecom’s BTX service and Mupid decoders promised a colorful world of online content at “high speed”, relatively speaking, but most of the online conversations still happened on FidoNet, which was the easiest way to get connected. “His Master’s Voice” and “Cuckoo’s Nest” were my favorite nodes. At university our VAX terminals in the labs continued to run on DECNet, as did the university administration system. We learned the ISO/OSI reference model and RPC over Ethernet, but no word of TCP/IP. At work my 3279 terminal eventually gave way to an IBM PS/2 with a 3270 network card, and some foresighted folks in our network group Advantis and in IBM Research started putting gateways in place to link the mostly SNA connected mainframes with the Internet. The BITFTP service Melinda Varian provided at Princeton University opened another window to the Internet world (belatedly, Melinda, thank you!)

Meanwhile Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau made the first proposal for a system they modestly called the World Wide Web in 1989, and further refined it in 1990.

I don’t recall when I got my first Internet e-mail address and access to the Internet gateways after signing agreements that I wouldn’t distribute commercial information over NSFNet and only use the Internet responsibly, but it was only in 1994 when I took notice of the first Website, the now defunct Trojan Room Coffee Machine at the University of Cambridge, and another year before I had my first homepage and my own domain. As many Websites those days would read, “Welcome to the Internet”.

Happy 20th anniversary to the Internet in Austria!

Related links:

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


July 2010 Vienna JavaScript User Group meeting

vienna.js, the Vienna JavaScript User Group meeting was held tonight at Metalab. Attendance wasn’t bad considering that it’s summer holiday season and lots of folks wouldn’t be in Vienna at this time of the year.

First, Matti Paksula from the University of Helsinki gave a mini-talk about SVG and JavaScript. Matti pointed out that canvas was unsuitable for shapes, “it’s for bitmaps, it’s not accessible, and it doesn’t scale”. Canvas isn’t all bad though; a combination of HTML 5, JavaScript, canvas and SVG is needed to replace Flash. (That probably means that Flash will be around for a while, despite the lack of support from some devices starting with an “i”.)

Demonstrations included the Canvas to SVG conversions and back as shown at SVG Open 2009, and a sneak preview on the latest version which runs completely client-side. Matti also mentioned the PottisJS SVG prototype library and showed an interactive SVG demo.

Next, Roland Schütz talked about JavaScript code management, specifically how to structure code and source files, implement an efficient workflow and automate the building (and testing) of JavaScript code. Roland mentioned a few nice tools for coding and testing JavaScript source code:Roland welcomes followers on his newly created Twitter feed @rolandschuetz.

Finally, Lars Dieckow delivered an impromptu talk entitled “Sommerloch” about–Perl :-). More than fifteen years after the release of Perl 5.000, Perl 6 is just around the corner and the Rakudo Star release will be available from the usual sources starting tomorrow.

As a long time Perl programmer–the first Perl programs I touched were Perl 4 code and I am pretty sure there are some &function calls around still in code we use today–I hadn’t closely followed the development of Perl 6, and it was good to get an update on enhancements and changes in Perl 6 and a live demo of some of the new features after the talk.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Human rights 2.0

“Human rights 2.0: Human rights in the information society” was the topic of two lectures in the series “Am Puls” by Dr. Jan Krone, professor for media science at the Fachhochschule St. Pölten, and Dr. Wolfgang Benedek, professor for public international law and international relations at the Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz.

Krone focused on freedom of the media, freedom of speech and data privacy in the European Union, pointing out that the Internet itself is not a mass medium but merely a communication channel that carries, amongst other things, media products: Individuals often gather information about others purely to satisfy their curiosity, and conversely share their personal information seeking for recognition. Companies mainly satisfy their business needs and sometimes manage to create “sect-like islands on the net like Apple does”, but generally lack the sensibility and awareness for data privacy needs. States need to balance the need for security and state intervention with the freedom of the people and basic rights.

In the following discussion, Krone suggested the Internet would eventually become fragmented along cultural or ideological borders, and Europe would have to build a European firewall similar to the Great Firewall in China (which uses technology from European IT and telecom suppliers). The audience strongly objected to the notion of a digital Schengen border, which goes against the liberal tradition in many European countries and doesn’t recognize the range of believes and the diversity within Europe.

Benedek talked about Internet governance and the role of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a “forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue”. Concepts for dealing with illegal activities and what is considered acceptable and appropriate encroachment upon basic rights such as those guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) vary between countries. Even more, what is illegal in one country may be perfectly legal and even socially accepted behavior elsewhere.

Touching on net neutrality and the digital divide, he mentioned that there is a push to make Internet access a human right and some countries have indeed added rights to participate in the information society to their constitutions. At the same time the copyright industry focuses on the three strikes model in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) model as punishment for intellectual property violations.

ACTA is not the only threat to access for all though: Much content today is only available to people who understand English, and not all content is suitable for children or accessible to elderly people. How we can make the net accessible to people of all ages and qualifications, and in their native languages, remains a challenge.

Basic human rights, including the rights to education, freedom of speech and freedom of press, increasingly have a material dependency on the right to Internet access. As an audience member pointed out, “offline” studying at university is virtually impossible; long gone are the days of paper handouts and blackboard announcements.

Both speakers agreed that the right to privacy requires “educated decisions” by the people, and consequently educating people. The lectures and the following lively discussion last night served that purpose well.

Related links:

Labels: , , , ,

Page tools